Former rebels enter key Mali city for mixed patrols with army

This photo taken on February 17, 2013 shows an aerial view of Gao, northern Mali, where former Tuareg rebels entered January 5, 2017 to begin joint patrols with government troops (AFP Photo/PASCAL GUYOT)

Gao (Mali) (AFP) - Former Tuareg rebels on Thursday entered Gao, the main city in northern Mali, to begin joint patrols with government troops, a key part of a peace accord for the troubled region.

"This is the first group of the CMA that has entered Gao to start mixed patrols," said Malick Ag Cherif, coordinator of the former rebel organisation, known as the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

In 2015, the rebel alliance signed a peace deal with government and loyalist militias.

The hope was to bring stability to a region that was the cradle of several Tuareg uprisings and a sanctuary for Islamist fighters.

Since then, rival armed groups have repeatedly violated the ceasefire, threatening attempts to give the north a measure of autonomy to prevent separatist uprisings.

A key component of the deal -- joint patrols between regular troops, pro-government militia and former rebels -- remained unfulfilled until now.

On December 30, the CMA complained a "group of armed men hostile to the CMA" had prevented some 200 of its men from entering government-held Gao for the patrols.

Malian Colonel Rhissa Ag Sidi Mohamed said there had been a problem between CMA dissidents and pro-government groups, but insisted: "The state has taken a major step and resolved the problem."

He said fighters from the other groups in the alliance were expected "to join us in the coming weeks and take part in the mixed patrols."

Mali regained control of the northern cities from the jihadists after a French-led international military intervention in January 2013, but insurgents remain active across large parts of the region.

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